Soft Power in the Contemporary Commonwealth: Approaches, Opportunities and Challenges
Recorded on 15 March 2023
On Commonwealth Day 2013 (11 March), Queen Elizabeth II signed the Commonwealth Charter, the result of wide-ranging consultations across the governments, associations and people of the Commonwealth, after the Eminent Persons Group on Commonwealth reform first promoted the idea of a single, non-binding document outlining the Organisation’s fundamental principles and values. In its final paragraph, and in line with support for democracy, human rights, the rule of law and sustainable development, the Charter stated: ‘We aspire to a Commonwealth that is a strong and respected voice in the world, speaking out on major issues; that strengthens and enlarges its networks; that has a global relevance and profile; and that is devoted to improving the lives of all peoples of the Commonwealth.’1 The ability of the Commonwealth to achieve such objectives is dependent on its capacity to act coherently and consensually on a specific list of clearly defined values, to publicise its work and – arguably – to intervene when member countries or Commonwealth organisations are in breach of the Charter.
The negotiation of the Charter coincided with increasing interest paid by a number of member states to the rationale and importance of soft power in delivering foreign policy objectives and as a core component of diplomacy. Defined by Joseph Nye as ‘the ability of a country to get what it wants through attraction, rather than coercion or payment’, soft power was central in the reflections of the UK Foreign Affairs Committee on 'The role and future of the Commonwealth in 2011-2012’. Former Minister of State, Lord Howell then described the Commonwealth as ‘the soft power network of the future’3 and the Committee’s report attached considerable importance to the ‘people’s Commonwealth’. Several Commonwealth organisations, including the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Association of Commonwealth Universities, also submitted evidence to the House of Lords Committee on ‘Soft Power and the UK’s Influence’, which started its work two months after the publication of the Commonwealth Charter and published its final report in 2014. Beyond the UK, ministries and diplomats across the Commonwealth, including in India, South Africa, Australia, the Caribbean and Pacific island states, have also paid renewed attention to soft power, in combination with hard and smart power, and to the ability of multilateral diplomatic networks such as the Commonwealth to attract and sustain membership, or to relay their interests and concerns.
At the heart of the Commonwealth Charter is the hope that the Commonwealth, as a voluntary intergovernmental association and as a people’s network, can itself wield distinct soft power. And yet ten years on, evolution of the Commonwealth and tensions on the global stage – including the resurgence of geopolitics, military conflicts and the unwillingness of governments to abide by net-zero by 2050 – have raised questions about both the ability of the Commonwealth to live up to the values of its Charter, and the place of soft power in international politics.
This one-day conference reflected on the approaches, opportunities and challenges to soft power in the Commonwealth.
The conference programme can be viewed below:
Timeline and Speakers
0:00 | Conference welcome
1:45 | Panel 1: SOFT POWER REVISITED: ACTORS, NORMS AND INSTITUTIONS
Chair: Dr Sue Onslow (Institute of Commonwealth Studies)
- The rule of law and the Commonwealth’s soft power Pamela Martino (Università degli Studi di Bari Aldo Moro)
- The Commonwealth, multilateralism and soft power Paul Flather (St Antony’s College, Oxford)
- The contradictions of soft power and the Commonwealth: the case of the “British” monarchy Philip Murphy (History & Policy, Institute of Historical Research, SAS)
1:30:29 | Panel 2: CULTURAL DIPLOMACY, EDUCATION NETWORKS AND ALTERNATIVE MODES OF LEARNING
Chair: Anaïs Makhzoum (Université de Picardie Jules Verne)
- British cultural diplomacy and the universities in the transition from Empire to Commonwealth, 1945-1960 Alice Byrne (Aix-Marseille Université)
- Soft Power Mechanisms and Higher Education in the Commonwealth Brendan Harrison (Association of Commonwealth Universities)
- The Commonwealth of Learning & Building Workforce Ready Skills in the Bahamas Robert Robertson (Institute of Commonwealth Studies)
2:56:36 | Panel 3: THE POLITICS OF RIGHTS AND JUSTICE IN THE CONTEMPORARY COMMONWEALTH: SOFT POWER NETWORKS IN ACTION
Chair: Mélanie Torrent (Université de Picardie Jules Verne/ICwS)
- The division of labour between the inter-state and non-state Commonwealths as a way of bolstering the Commonwealth’s soft power Virginie Roiron (Sciences Po Strasbourg)
- Facing the Past in order to Lead in the Future: How will Addressing the Commonwealth’s Challenging Past Help to Ensure its Effective Use of Soft Power in the Future? Carollann Braum (Anglo-American University School of Law in Prague)
4:25:52 | Conference Close